It shouldn’t come as a surprise that advertising companies know exactly how to reel in consumers, that’s their job. They compile loads of data and research and conduct numerous studies just to find out what makes the general population tick. They want to know EXACTLY what will make you personally buy their product, and they are good at their jobs. The food industry is huge, and marketing strategies are common practice, but what are the effects of all this food advertising?
Because the food industry and advertisers are smart, they know that their easiest, and most vulnerable, targets are children. If you have ever watched cartoons on a Saturday morning (admit it, you still do), every single commercial is selling something to kids and many of those commercials are selling food. A 2007 study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children in the 2 to 7 age bracket will see 12 food related commercials per day. That would translate to about 30 hours and 4,427 food ads in one year. As children get older, the amount of food ads increases. I don’t know about you but the fact that a child as young as 2 years old is already being exposed to a barrage of food commercials is a little shocking. Not as surprising is the amount of junk food commercials compared to the amount of healthier food commercials, which is about 76% junk and 5% healthy.
The problem with all these commercials for food being aimed directly at children is that kids have a very hard time grasping the concept of advertising. They just do not have the cognitive capacity to understand that they are being sold a product and very young kids can’t even determine the difference between a TV show and a commercial. What’s more is that their favorite characters or celebrities are in these advertisements trying to get them (or more accurately their parents) to buy the product. What kid doesn’t want to eat mac and cheese shaped as their favorite cartoon character? Already at a young age these advertisements are setting up unhealthy eating habits. In this 2009 health study on TV viewing and food consumption, researchers found that children eat 45% more food when exposed to food advertising. These habits lead into adulthood as this study also found that adults consumed more as well after exposure to food advertising.
I can see you thinking to yourself, “Well there is an easy fix to this, why don’t we just start marketing healthier food?” That would seem like the most logical answer, but this has its pitfalls as well. When the healthier food companies start using the same tactics as the junk food people, say using a popular character to advertise their product, they are influencing children to buy their product because their favorite character is selling it, not because they actually want the food in the commercial. It is important to help children make food choices based on their own needs, such as hunger or good nutrition, not because Ronald McDonald is telling them to. Building a healthy relationship with food at a young age is important because those skills will carry on into adulthood and educate children on how to make healthy choices and take care of themselves.
I know it can seem like an overwhelming task for parents to fight against the millions of advertisements that are constantly being shown to their children. Heck, it’s hard for adults to navigate their own food choices when it comes to advertising. Here are a few ideas to try out (for both kids and adults) when it comes to not being swayed by food advertisements.
1. Stop and decide if you are actually hungry. You just saw a commercial for a Dorito Taco at Taco Bell when, suddenly, you REALLY want a taco. Or maybe your child has come running at you telling you they NEED to have a happy meal even though they just had breakfast 2 minutes ago. Before you drive to Taco Bell or rush out to get a happy meal for your tot, take a second and stop. Are you really hungry? When was the last time you ate? What about the commercial was appealing to you? Taking the time to really evaluate why you want food will cut the chance of you eating just for the sake of the advertisement. Talking through these questions with your child can help them start to learn how to make proper food choices, such as eating when they are actually hungry versus eating because they just saw food on TV.
2. Limit the amount of time you spend watching TV. My husband Adam and I have not had cable TV for the past 3 years for numerous reasons, mainly cost. Now before you think we are total nut jobs who just sit and stare at each other or only (gasp!) read for entertainment, we do have Netflix and we watch plenty of TV shows and movies. What we do not, or very rarely, watch are commercials. Netflix does not have commercials and because we don’t have “regular” TV we are not exposed to advertising in this form. I have no clue what food specials are running at local fast food place or what the next crazy food concoction some company has come up with. Because I don’t watch TV, I don’t have any desire for or knowledge of these things and I believe that has really helped with leading a healthier lifestyle. I understand that not everyone wants to cut off their cable and that is totally your decision. You can however choose to limit your time watching TV. Limiting your exposure to advertisements weakens their effect on you. Many people have some form of DVR, so you could even record your favorite shows and fast forward through the commercials. Better yet, how about cutting down your TV time and doing something to promote your health? Play outside, read a book, take a new exercise or cooking class. By getting away from the television, you also get away from the advertising.
3. Let your children play a part in their eating. This last tip is more for children. Instead of making every single food choice for your child, involve them in the process. For younger kids, give them plenty of healthy options at mealtime and let them choose what to eat. At the grocery store, give kids a list of healthy foods that you are willing to buy and let them pick a few to find and purchase. For older kids, let them help you cook. Get them to pick out a recipe they want to try or simply have them help you prepare food for dinner. Being allowed to be a part of their own eating lets kids find out what foods they like or don’t like and lets them have some control over their habits.
These are just a few ideas to get started, but there are plenty more out there. Here are some more in depth tips for children of various ages. Just because those tips are aimed at children though doesn’t mean they can’t be helpful to adults as well. Remember you are just as susceptible to advertising as children, even if you do know better. Like I said earlier, advertisers are smart and know how to reel you in. As long as you are conscientious and aware, you can avoid unhealthy pitfalls and even help the future generation find their best health!